The New Israel Fund’s Israeli Problem

Opinion

By Shmuel Rosner

Published February 10, 2010, issue of February 19, 2010.
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It’s not surprising that a vicious and aggressive attack would prompt an equally hysterical response. Such is the case with the recent campaign against the New Israel Fund (over its unintended contributions to the Goldstone Report) and the counter-campaign launched by NIF and its allies.

In recent weeks, Israel has been described as a country where the parliament has “breathed new life into Joseph McCarthy’s legacy” (in the words of Hagai El-Ad of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel), a country where there is an “increasingly authoritarian and extremist ideology taking hold” (as NIF itself put it), and a country in danger of sliding toward “fascism” and where “disaster is on our door-step” (as Haim Oron, head of the leftist Meretz party, wrote).

Not long ago, when J Street, a new dovish Jewish lobby, was established in Washington, its supporters were complaining that the American Jewish debate over Israel had been muted, hushed by the Jewish establishment. We should have a debate about Israel as fierce and as vigorous as Israelis themselves have, those behind J Street kept saying. Why can Israelis air their differences with such force and we American Jews can’t? Why can’t we be as blunt and aggressive when we disagree with Israel’s policies?

Apparently, such comparisons work for the proponents of “open debate” only when they themselves benefit from it. They enjoy the intensity of the Israeli domestic debate, the bluntness of it, but only when it serves their goals. Now — when the dragon of Israel’s aggressive public discourse has seared the holier-than-thou New Israel Fund — fierce debate doesn’t seem as appealing.

Granted, the criticism of NIF was at times ugly in tone, too personal and quite disgusting in its use of tasteless images of NIF’s president, Naomi Chazan (the kinds of things one typically finds in fierce Israeli debates). But it is also a manifestation of real concerns and legitimate frustrations that Israelis have with the way liberal American Jews and their Israeli emissaries try to affect Israeli society.

Yes, it was a blunt message: NIF, we don’t like how you strengthen organizations that we find harmful to Israel. We don’t like that your grants support anti-Zionist Arab groups, that you help people who busy themselves bad-mouthing Israel and its policies around the world, that you have too many friends who seem to think that Israel can do no right, that you seem quite unmoved by the anxieties of Israelis who worry about the likes of the Goldstone Report and quite unready to share the burden of rebutting unfair criticisms of Israel.

I don’t expect NIF and its beneficiaries to enjoy such a message. But this isn’t McCarthyism. It’s telling the NIF crowd the blunt truth, and maybe, hopefully, making them realize that while they’re busy making their liberal benefactors abroad happy, they’ve lost touch with Israelis.

But the alarmist activists and commentators say that the current campaign against NIF is actually just one part of a larger pattern of recent events threatening Israeli democracy. They cite the arrests of protesters opposed to the judicial expropriation of Palestinian homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem and the police questioning of Israeli feminists who hold prayer services at the Western Wall. Both of these situations, however, are more complicated than what proponents of the “McCarthyism” narrative would have us believe.

Yes, the arrangement at the Western Wall is shameful. It should be changed. However, it won’t be changed unless Israelis themselves want it to change. While Women of the Wall — the group that’s making the waves — should be commended for its success in mobilizing American Jewish opinion, these women (much like NIF) have failed to marshal significant Israeli support behind their cause. Without a transformation in Israeli attitudes, without enough Israelis sufficiently unhappy about the current arrangements to take a stand, there will be no change at the Wall. If one believes that the police were acting to silence the women, rather than simply behaving stupidly, one doesn’t understand Israeli realities. Frankly, there’s no need for silencing a group that hardly has any voice.

The issue of the demonstrations in Sheikh Jarrah is more serious. But here, again, the alarmists are looking at the glass only as if it were half-empty. While police arrests of demonstrators were questionable and unprovoked, an Israeli court was quick to fix things and affirm the protesters’ freedom to demonstrate. There were protests, arrests, appeals — and the rule of law prevailed. These aren’t signs that Israel is on its way to “fascism” but rather of a healthy democracy.

The dire predictions about the future of Israeli democracy are being propagated by those who got tired of trying to persuade Israelis and rally them to their cause — the real “democratic” way. Instead, they have decided to force Israelis into submission by way of marshaling external pressure. While this approach may succeed in frightening their allies abroad, it’s not going to win them many new friends at home.

Shmuel Rosner is a columnist for The Jerusalem Post and for Ma’ariv. He is the nonfiction editor for the publishing house Kinneret-Zmora and a fellow at the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute.


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